Saturday, June 28, 2008

Raiding My Anthologies - Some Favourite Poems 4

Reading the poems of Robert Frost (1874-1963) has always been a pleasant task and has always proved rewarding for me.  I remember reading his more anthologised poems as a boy and I enjoyed them, but those are not the ones to which I find myself returning.  The poems I find myself returning to again and again are those poems which have a beguilingly familiar and charmingly innocent rural facade, but then as the reader engages with the poem often a very pessimistic and menacing undertone trips the reader up.  We all associate Frost with New England and with farming.  However, he was born on the West Coast - San Francisco to be exact - but moved East with his family upon the death of his father when Robert was only 11.

The poet Robert Frost was a great man to capture the "rural speech" of America and while lecturing always told his students that they must of necessity account for the sound of the human voice in their craft.  This advice appeals to me because as I have stated numerous times in these posts, poems are meant to be read aloud with the voice and ears fully engaged.  Anyway Robert divided his long life of 88 years to farming and lecturing.  he was the recipient of some four Pulitzer prizes and was awarded numerous Doctorates.  One of the honours he had, an honour that appeals to me as an Irishman, was reading at President John F. Kennedy's inauguration.

It does not surprise me that there was a history of mental health problems in Robert's family and I feel that this accounts for the menacing undertone we get in many of his poems.  Both he and his wife suffered from depression.  Frost had to commit both his sister Jeanie and his daughter Irma to psychiatric hospitals at various stages and his son Carol committed suicide at 38.

The poems that instantly come to my mind from my time at college are:  "After Apple Picking", "Fire and Ice", "Mending Wall", "Nothing Gold Can Stay",  "Once By the Pacific", "Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening", "Directive", "Out, Out" and  "Acquainted With The Night" and "Desert Places".  We did all these and more with the late John Devitt, RIP.  Those lectures and tutorials with John were always mind-blowing.  I could equally as well place any one of these poems below.  However, for today's raid I have been literally tripped up in my stride by "Acquainted With The Night" and also by "Desert Places"  As a sufferer from depression I can readily associate with the deeper and darker sentiments of both these poems.  However, one poem is enough for any one post and so I append here the words of "Desert Places."  Read and enjoy!  Also it's no harm, too, if a poem disturbs us.  We do not always go to literature to be comforted.  we often go to be confirmed in our suffering, confirmed in our condition as human beings that we are not only ones who feel this or that or the other way.  At any rate, if enjoy is an inappropriate word, at least be consoled that we live a shared condition.

Desert Places
by: Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

From "A Further Range", 1936

Above a picture of Robert Frost in old age.

Raiding My Anthologies - Some Favourite Poems 3

When I was young my father thought I had gone crazy.  Let me explain.  I always loved the sounds of words.  Hence, when I came home from school I used go to my bedroom and read aloud all the poems, both in Irish and in English that we had learned that day.  An old brother, nicknamed "Nipper" taught us all those great elocution poems like Lepanto and Horatio on The Bridge and boy did we read them aloud and in unison with great passion and verve.  That was when I was a 12 year old first year.  No wonder my father thought me cracked when he'd hear the battle sounds of Lepanto or an account of brave Horatio's exploits emanating from my upstairs bedroom.

When I got to college I studied English Literature for four years, and I especially enjoyed our poetry tutorials where we were introduced to the poems of Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot and Randal Jarrell among many others.  I mention these three as our tutor, the late John Devitt, R.I.P., brought in tapes of the three of these poets reading their own work.  Needless to say I was blown away by the spoken word.  Anyone who has never heard any of the three reading has missed a real treat.  Jarrell read his poems with an intensity of feeling that is hard to forget.  The emotion of his voice literally strained across the very words like an animal skin across the face of a drum.  Then Eliot who read his poems with great stentorian aplomb and with the immaculate diction of an Oxford don and he an American.  Lastly Dylan Thomas stole the show for me.  Dylan not alone read his poems, he proclaimed and declaimed them.  In fact he became his poems.  His marvellously deep Welsh voice had the clarity of diction that any elocution teacher might desire and the magic of words equal only to Shakespeare.  I begged John to lend me his tapes and I copied them.  I have those copies in my possession to this day somewhere in my attic.

Here I want to introduce the reader to one of my favourite Dylan Thomas poems.  It's called The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.  Don't ask what this poem means.  Just read it aloud.  Poetry has to be read with ear more than the eye.  Most times the meaning is caught somewhere between the words and even in its sound.  Here's the poem.  Read it aloud.  Let your husband, wife or children think you have gone mad.  Why not?  Do it now!


The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

It would be nothing short of crazy to attempt to paraphrase what is nothing short of a beautiful cocktail of life and death, of life in death and death in life, of green fused life, of pumping pulsating life, of that green fuse, of the very pump that drives the blood about the body, of the coming, the growing and the dying of life, of that life going full circle again and again and again.  All of teeming life is in this poem found somewhere riding on the back of the untamed beast of whatever energy life essentially is.  Lines that appeal especially to me are:

"The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood"

"How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks."

"And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman's lime."

"And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars."

Ah do not ask, as our own poet Patrick Kavanagh put it, "for reason's payment."  Just read and re-read and re-read this wonderful poem aloud, and the meaning will drop aurally into your heart.  It will not fail to move you.  Let the words trip off your tongue with relish and the meaning will leap into your mind in sure repayment for your enthusiastic efforts. 

Above a picture of a young Dylan Thomas

Friday, June 27, 2008

Raiding My Anthologies - Some Favourite Poems 2

Poets writing about their children, needless to say, is a common theme in literature.  After all, the birth of new life is perhaps the most enriching and emotionally moving experience any parents have the privilege of having.  The last poem I presented to you was one by our very own James Joyce.  Now, I would like to take you back a couple of centuries to the English Romantic poets, the poets of the Lake District especially, and to the the wonderful Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) in particular.  I have written much about STC in these pages before as he remains my favourite Romantic poet, because of his sheer humanity, his times of sheer excess, his brilliance and vulnerability so intertwined, his love of languages and philosophy and his genuineness and honesty.  See the following link for my previous comments: Samuel Taylor  

Today, I wish to refer to his wonderful poem "Frost a Midnight," which was written at a table in his little Nether Stowey cottage with his wee son Hartley, only 18 months old, by his side. This poem, short enough by Romantic standards, somewhat longish for us today, is suffused with tenderness for his little innocent son and weighed down a little with his own personal problems.  I have read that STC was called a "Damaged Archangel" by one scholar. Although, it was evident that Coleridge was a prodigy, he did not do well at a young age because he lost himself in women, drugs, and alcohol. He turned to the army, but this too fell through for him because his family was furious and anyway, he was a terrible soldier who could not even ride a horse properly - strange this,  because he was in a cavalry division if my memory serves me.  Then his brother had him released for reasons of insanity. He immediately brought him back to Cambridge. It was here that he met William Wordsworth, and as the cliché has it, the rest is history.  However, if you read the two volumes of Richard Holmes's biography, you will grow to love this wounded and oh-so-human genius.  This poem I am appending below, Frost at Midnight, is at once a beautiful poem for his innocent son and a desperate attempt for the writer to find hope in life.  Samuel Taylor had been very attached to his own father, but unfortunately this man died when he was only seven. Poor Sam was almost immediately sent away to boarding school.  With our modern understanding of how grief affects the human being, especially at a young age, we can say that Coleridge sought to express that grief as best he could through his life's work. 

I think, I've said enough.  Now read the poem.

Frost at Midnight

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud, -and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing
Methinks its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birthplace, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor's face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:

Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger's face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My playmate when we both were clothed alike!

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm
Fill up the interspersed vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,

And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,

Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Needless to say, any of the underlining above is my doing as these are the words that jump out at me from the text.  This is always the way I read poems letting such phrases jump out and catch me at the throat as it were.  I love the idea of the father sitting at his table, with his "babe" sleeping by his side looking out on the star-filled night sky.  Also what a marvellous phrase is the twice repeated one - at the opening and at the end - "The Frost performs its secret ministry."  For a romantic at heart, nature is the utmost and essential communicator of the divine as it were, or of a deep spirit of life.  Also, I love how delicate frost is anyway.  The child is delicate, the frost is delicate - it will die away and so will we.  Immediately, we are launched into the mystery of life through the ministry or good services of the frost that falls.  It is typical of a highly romantic poem that sounds and lack of sounds should fill it - "that solitude," "extreme silentness" and "this deep calm" and so on over against the sounds of nature - "the owlet's cry."  Then the wonderful fire in the grate behind them makes its mystical presence felt:

the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing

"Film" at the time referred to a piece of soot fluttering in the grate - such films were believed to herald the arrival of a guest or of a a stranger. This adds to the magic and wonder and mystery of the poem which altogether is presided over by the minister of the occasion, namely, the frost.  It also provides a lovely link with his life as a schoolboy looking at the films of soot through the bars of the grate in which the fire lay.  Then his youthful mind wished that some stranger would come, someone from his faraway home town, a visitor from his youth.  Poor lonely young boy!  We all know, or think we know at least, this longing heart of loneliness.

I have said many times before in these posts that the human personality reminds me of an onion, because I believe that each successive year adds another layer to it.  Let me explain.  At the core of the human person lies the little embryo before birth = core; then we have birth = trauma and excitement of life; childhood; adolescence; adulthood; middle age and then old age; finally death.  Those who believe in any god or even in the transpersonal and spiritual nature of the person this consciousness lives on.  At least that's my theory.  I give this psychological aside here because the poet is at once reliving his young life, the loss of his father as it was this caring father who brought him out to view the night sky - hence the reference to stars above; his sense of abandonment in a boarding school - looking through the bars of the grate at night; daydreaming in class - how often I used do it myself at school; how he had only his daydreams to inspire him in the boarding school in the city:

For I was reared
In the great city, pent mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars

Throughout life, Coleridge idealized his father as pious and innocent, while his relationship with his mother was more problematic. His childhood was characterized by attention-seeking, which has been linked to his dependent personality (alcohol, opium through it's laudanum form, his uneasy dependence on women and indeed on all his friends) as an adult. He was rarely allowed to return home during the school term, and this distance from his family at such a turbulent time proved emotionally damaging. This is all seen quite easily in all his poems.  That's what endears Coleridge to me and always has.  I never tire reading any of his poems or essays.  I'd love to meet him and hug him.

In short, I think this is a wonderful poem. I had better stop writing as I shall only go on and on, and probably then around in circles.  When we human beings deal with any experience we bring all our remembered experiences as well as the unremembered and unconscious ones, all of them, yes all of them, into play.  That's what's happening here with Samuel.  Excuse the length of this entry.  I got carried away as I always do with Sam.  I'll finish with Sam's gentle epitaph:

Stop, Christian passer-by : Stop, child of God,
And read, with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he--
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.--
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death.

P.S. A Note On Hartley Coleridge: Hartley was very like his father and became a poet and writer, but did not achieve the fame that Samuel did. Hartley was born in 1796 and died in 1849 at the age of 53. He never married. Another son of Samuel Taylor's was Derwent who became an Anglican Minister like his grandfather, married and had a family and lived into ripe old age.

Above I have placed a portrait picture of the young Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Raiding My Anthologies - Some Favourite Poems 1

Ah, the blessed days of Summer - even if it is raining - are long enjoyable ones.  I get to read, read and read and write, write and write.  These are old habits for me dating back to when I was a child.  My family always placed more attention on things of the mind than on worldly goods, of which we had little or nothing.  Anyway, I've decided to go raiding my bookshelves again - this time among my poetry books.  Today I stumbled on a lovely little poem written by James Joyce.  I have not seen this one - called Ecce Puer - anthologised much, but it is a lovely little thing on a par with Yeats' A Prayer for my Daughter.  Read and savour:

Ecce Puer

Of the dark past
A child is born;
With joy and grief
My heart is torn.

Calm in his cradle
The living lies.
May love and mercy
Unclose his eyes!

Young life is breathed
On the glass;
The world that was not
Comes to pass.

A child is sleeping:
An old man gone.
O, father forsaken,
Forgive your son!

James Joyce (1882-1941)


I would now like to offer a small poem I composed today in memory of a wonderful old man, Reverend Timothy Claver Leonard, one time provincial of the then Northern Province (St Mary's) of the Christian Brothers in Ireland.  Tim was a brilliant administrator who was very far-sighted indeed.  He set up a nursing home for the old brothers in their declining years way back in the 1960s.  He was also a brilliant teacher, a very clever man and an excellent psychologist.  However, I remember him as a great organiser who could get anything up and going - trips here and there, pilgrimages to anywhere, courses on spirituality and self-development to name but some of his endeavours.  He was an MBTI facilitator right up until his early eighties when poor health forced him to stop this marvellous work.  But the most striking fact of all were the many people who called into him in his office/room at the Oratory of the Resurrection for that little bit of comfort. Resquiescat in pace!  Leaba i measc na naomh go raibh aige choíche!

Old Man

In Memoriam T.C. Leonard cfc (1922-2008)

Whatever rock you stood upon,

Old man,

It was solid and firm –

Your brother said that you were

Always the leader,

The first through the fields

On the way to school

Seventy or more years ago.


Whatever rock you stood upon,

Old man,

You were a buoy for me,

A small light in a then dark night

When my sea was a storm of waves.


How could I forget your strength,

Old man,

Your hand that pulled me clear?

Old head that nodded knowingly

But never, never judged.


How could I forget

Now that you are laid to rest?

They have come from afar,

All your family – so many,

Your friends – as many.


Your nephews sang you down

To a comfortable rest

In a friendly soil,

Old man,

Wise old man.


I can hear their voices yet,

Old man,

A caoineadh as of old,

Making a plaintiff music in the leaves,

Wringing wisdom from the wind.


They said their song was for one

Such as you,

Old man,

For the loss of an important link

With the memories of their past.


Rest in peace,

Old man,

They shall not forget you lived,

Nor I that you were so strong.

Above I have placed a picture of a stained glass window from Mount Sion, Waterford City, the first foundation of The Irish Christian Brothers. The personage illustrated is, of course, Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice, founder of The Irish Christian Brothers.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

And Man and Woman Said: "Let Our Bodies be Poems": A Tribute to all those brave souls who bore the naked truth of their Body-Souls in Cork and Dublin!

Let us celebrate life.  Let us celebrate living.  We only live once.  This is no dress rehearsal. Let's not waste a minute of brilliant beautiful life.  My father (RIP), whom I love more and more as I get older, had loads and loads of old country sayings.  One of them was: "Ah sure, we'll be a long time dead!"  It's rather on a par with what St Paul criticized people for doing: "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!"  How true the saying, how forbidding of St Paul, even if he did say that a little wine was good for the spirit!

As I grow older I have grown more bodily, if I may put it that way.  Let me explain.  By this I mean, as we age the body begins to get us to take it for real.  It's as if it says:  "Hey, don't abuse me.  My foot is sore.  My teeth pain me.  My hair is graying...  Bring me out for more exercise.  Why are you pumping all that shit into me?" 

Strangely also, for a man who lost his religious faith at 40 and who then began to find spirituality and psychology and psychotherapy and the real soul soon after, I became so much more aware of my body - all of it indeed, including the bits and pieces which were taught were somehow ugly.  Let me explain further...

Western man has been brought up on a narrow restricted diet of Cartesian dualism, fortified with a very negative Augustinian and later take on Christianity which literally became an ideology in certain conservative circles which could be reduced to something like this: "Soul Good, Body Bad!"  My generation (I'm 50) were at the tail end of the era whose catch-phrases were "impure thoughts" and "sex is bad and dirty" and "masturbation is a wicked act."   Then, I remember when I was only 16, a girl whom I knew, a beautiful girl, only 15, being sent away to have her baby!"   She somehow miraculously arrived back, sans baby, and I think sans hope, having given up her child for adoption!  What a dreadful unfeeling introspective, conservative society.  Thankfully those days are gone, long gone.  However, some vestiges of it still linger.   I have written at length about the twin influences of negative Christianity and negative Cartesian dualism in a post of May 27th his year, entitled Break from Dreaming which you can read more fully there: Old Attitudes

All of this above has been inspired by the reports we have had in the papers recently of the wonderful installations of the famous (or infamous - well done he!) international nude photographer Spencer Tunick.  Unfortunately, I could not attend the Dublin Installation as I had to collect some visitors for the airport.  I envy those who had the opportunity of being present at such a liberating event.  At long last, the Romantic Ireland myth (and an ideological one at that, like the myth of the worker in Soviet Russia) of the "comely maidens dancing at the crossroads" is dead.  O Dev, you've a lot to be blamed for as well as praised for!

It is wonderful to see the human body recognised in all its naked beauty, as distinct from its naked eroticism.  I forget what percentage of the web is made up of pornography in all its variant forms from softcore to hardcore and still much worse still I'm told, but it is nice to see the naked human body being portrayed artistically by people at union with each other celebrating the beauty of their very own bodies.  I've looked at a good lot of Spencer's work on the net and have found it interesting and indeed respectful of the earthiness of the body, of the beauty of that earthiness.  I can only say, as anyone with any wit will know, that his images are anything but erotic. They are natural, beautiful, earthy, good and pure.  Now back to that horribly ideological phrase: "Soul good, Body Bad."  Spencer Tunick's motto should be: "Soul Good, Body Good!" 

Anyway, in honour of a New Ireland, come of age at last and in honour of all those brave souls who went either to Blarney or the Ring's End installations  let me offer one of my favourite poems by way of tribute to the beauty of the human body.  Now, also as I have aged, I have come to realise that anyone who embraces their body, paradoxically, embraces his/her soul.  That only convinces me of my belief of the last 10 years or more that the human person is a holistic unity of Body-Soul.  I love that term Body-Soul.  Now, to all of you brave people out there, let me say, well done, embrace your Body-Soul because it's the only way to grow!  The poem is by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)  I have heavily edited the poem as it is very long.  You'll find it here in full on the net: Body Electric

I Sing the Body Electric


I SING the Body electric;

The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves;

And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do as much as the Soul?
And if the body were not the Soul, what is the Soul?


The love of the Body of man or woman balks account—the body itself balks account;

That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.
The expression of the face balks account;
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face;
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists;
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees—dress does not hide him;
The strong, sweet, supple quality he has, strikes through the cotton and flannel;

To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more;

You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side.
The sprawl and fulness of babes, the bosoms and heads of women, the folds of their dress, their style as we pass in the street, the contour of their shape downwards,
The swimmer naked in the swimming-bath, seen as he swims through the transparent green-shine, or lies with his face up, and rolls silently to and fro in the heave of the water,
The bending forward and backward of rowers in row-boats—the horseman in his saddle,


I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them, or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment—what is this, then?
I do not ask any more delight—I swim in it, as in a sea.
There is something in staying close to men and women, and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well;
 All things please the soul—but these please the soul well.
And the glory and sweet of a man, is the token of manhood untainted;
And in man or woman, a clean, strong, firm-fibred body, is beautiful as the most beautiful face.
Have you seen the fool that corrupted his own live body? or the fool that corrupted her own live body?
For they do not conceal themselves, and cannot conceal themselves.


O my Body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you;
 I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the Soul, (and that they are the Soul;)
I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems—and that they are poems,
Man’s, woman’s, child’s, youth’s, wife’s, husband’s, mother’s, father’s, young man’s, young woman’s poems;
Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eye-brows, and the waking or sleeping of the lids,
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges,
Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition,
Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue,
Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the ample side-round of the chest.
Upper-arm, arm-pit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones,
and thence downward toward the knees,

The thin red jellies within you, or within me—the bones, and the marrow in the bones,

The exquisite realization of health;
O I say, these are not the parts and poems of the Body only, but of the Soul,
O I say now these are the Soul.

It is only when I re-read all the old poems I studied at college - I did English literature for 4 years so we were exposed to a lot of fine poems - that I realise the depth of wisdom in some of them.  As I re-read "Body Electric" at 50 years of age I now realise that the wonderful celebratory poet Walt Whitman understood intuitively the concept of Body-Soul or Body-Mind.  Here are a few links from some Irish bloggers with some photos of the event at Dublin.  Read their blog entries - they are like Walt's poem - celebratory of our Body-Souls:  Debbie ; lecraic; Wynner and Darragh Doyle.  From this last blog I downloaded the picture above, thanks Darragh. If that's your picture it's brilliant.  

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Happy Birthday, Nelson

I remember long ago a lecturer asking us students who we would like to meet in heaven?  I cannot remember how I answered.  These days I would not really care whether heaven exited or not.  I also happily remember my late father Tom saying that he would preferentially go to hell for the good company.  I felt there was not alone good humour in that remark but also a sense of fun and a deep understanding of human nature.

What makes one individual more attractive than another?  What makes one individual into a hero and another not?  Is it ability, intelligence, good looks or what?  Perhaps it is simply humanity?  By that I mean a person is a hero who knows how to uplift others; how to bring them safely through a crisis; how to encourage the weak; how to console those who have lost much; in short a person is a hero who knows how to sow the seeds of hope in the frailty of the human condition and convince those of a weaker constitution that it is worthwhile to keep going.

In this regard, Nelson Mandela has always been a hero for me.  To return to my opening sentence, let's rephrase the question as "Who would you like to meet right now?"  Forget above abstract other worlds.  If heaven exists, I believe, it is in the NOW!  Well, my answer is simple.  It would have to be Nelson Mandela.  What a man!  What a wonderful human being!  He strides across our all too human world like a colossus, for so he is.  It's hard to imagine that Nelson Mandela is 90 this year.  In fact this whole year - 2008 - has been designated officially as the year to celebrate his birthday.  This is a brilliant idea.  We just do not want to let Nelson go, and who can blame us?  We want to on and on rejoicing that such great humans exist among the myriads of lesser mortals like us.

Unfortunately, I cannot boast a Madiba (an honorary title in Nelson's clan) moment (A Madiba moment is a moment when one meets the good man in person).  However, I do recollect going into Dawson Street and standing for a few hours to hear Nelson Mandela speak in person.  That was in 1990 when Madiba dropped by to collect his Freedom of the City of Dublin parchment from the Lord Mayor.  Actually Dublin City Corporation had awarded him that honour two years earlier some months before his eventual release from prison. 

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in Transkei, South Africa on July 18, 1918.  So in three weeks time he will have reached the grand old age of 90.  His father was Chief Henry Mandela of the Tembu Tribe, and because his teachers and others at college could not pronounce the Rolihlahla part of his name they decided on Nelson after Horatio Nelson, the famous British Admiral.

He has many links with Martin Luther King besides the obvious ones.  One of Mandela's heroes was Mahatma Gandhi, and it is little wonder that he shared this particular hero with Martin Luther King.  In fact Dr. King had done his Ph.D. in theology in the area of Gandhi's principles of peaceful protest.  News of Madiba's imminent 90th birthday sent me back to my bookshelves to ferret out the books by and on Mandela in my library.  I came across his (almost complete) collection of his speeches, and they are mighty.  However, I loved Bill Clinton's foreward (another individual for whom I waited for hours to hear speak in College Green, Dublin) to that same book.  I loved these word's from Bill:

Mandela's enduring legacy is that, under a crushing burden of oppression he saw through differences, discrimination and destruction to embrace our common humanity.  Thanks to him life and work, the rest of us are closer to embracing it too.  (Nelson Mandela in his own Words: From Freedom to the Future, Abacus, 2003, xvi)

This book, edited by Kader Asmal (one time Professor of Law at TCD, former minister in the South African Government and whom it was my privilege to meet when, as president of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, he paid a visit to our school to give a talk to our students), David Chidester and Wilmot James.   I still have my Irish Anti-Apartheid badge which I got from Kader.

Builders and Healers

For this heading I take Madiba's own words to underline his vision of hope not alone for South Africa, but for any nation which wishes to promote the dignity and welfare of all its citizens equally:

Let me preface the identification of the challenges for the coming year [1996]  by saying that all of us, all South Africans, are called upon to become builders and healers.  But, for all the joy and excitement of creation, to build and to heal are difficult undertakings.

We can neither heal nor build, if such healing and building are perceived as one-way processes, with the victims of past injustices forgiving and the beneficiaries merely content in gratitude.  Together we must set out to correct the defects of the past.

We can neither heal nor build if, on the one hand, the rich in our society see the poor as hordes of irritants; or if, on the other, the poor sit back expecting charity.  All of us must take responsibility for the upliftment of our conditions, prepared to give our best to the benefit of all...

We must work together to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth, opportunity and power in our society.  (State of the Nation Address, Feb, 1996; op.cit. supra, 157-157.

There can be few individuals in the world as un-bitter and as un-resentful as Madiba Nelson Mandela.  It took a great person who was and is a great leader to accomplish what he has accomplished for all the people of South Africa - black, white or coloured. 

During his years in prison, Nelson Mandela's reputation grew steadily. He was widely accepted as the most significant black leader in South Africa and became a potent symbol of resistance as the Anti-Apartheid Movement gathered strength.  That he should have achieved all this from behind bars is testimony to his strength of character, his unflinching vision of freedom for all and his sheer non-partisan notion of humanity.  He consistently refused to compromise any of these principles, much less his political position to obtain his freedom.  To the grand old statesman of South Africa, of the African Continent and indeed of the World Community, I wish a very happy 90th birthday.  To meet with you would be a dream come true, but to read your words, hear your voice, see your smiling face of hope is more than enough to lift the heart of any human being.  May the Spirit the guides Mother Africa and Mother Earth cradle you in her arms!

Amandla, Madiba, Amandla!!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Watching With Wiesel 3

As I've already said this marvellously moving little autobiography reads like a novel.  Unfortunately, it's not a novel - it's true.  It tells the sad story of one man's experience of being an inmate in Auschwitz.  Elie Wiesel is a wonderful writer whose spare style pares all details down to the absolute essential.  It were as if he had distilled this story in some inner distillery to arrive at the heart of the evil truth of the Nazi genocide.   It is as if the stench of the grossest evil rises from his words.

This book is a book of endings - the end of of innocence; the end of imagination; the end of childhood; the end of dreams and hopes; the end of life; the end of the world; the end of the very universe as it were.  Here is an insight into the trauma the 15 year old Elie went through:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.  Never shall I forget the smoke.  Never shall I forget the small faces of children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.  Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.  Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.  Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.  Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.  Never.  (Night, 34)

What sad words.  What beautifully sad words for such an ugly occurrence.  What beautifully appropriate words to sing of the evilest of things.  His words are a scripture of despair.

Again this marvellously apt description of the young fifteen year old boy's inner existential state:

The night had passed completely.  The morning star shone in the sky.  I too had become a different person.  The student of the Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames.  All that was left was a shape that resembled me.  My soul had been invaded - and devoured - by a black flame. (Ibid., 37)

Perhaps the bleakest part of this little book is the forced marches of the poor wretched inmates from Auschwitz as the Russian front drew closer.  These poor wretches were forced to march on very little to no rations, eating snow for water to a new camp away from the Russians.  Many many hundreds of these poor wretches died on the forced marches.  Then that sad sad story - I am forced to repeat the adjective for emphasis as even one word is not enough to capture the experience for the reader.  A friend of Elie's had managed to bring his violin with him - the instrument that manages to carry his soul that his poor frail body failed to.  The words are so apt:

Those were my thoughts when I heard the sound of a violin.  A violin in a dark barrack where the dead were piled on top of the living?  Who was this madman who played the violin here, on the edge of his own grave?  Or was it a hallucination?  It had to be Juliek.  He was playing a fragment of a Beethoven concerto.  Never before had I heard such a beautiful sound.  In such silence... The darkness enveloped us.  All I could hear was the violin, and it was as if Juliek's soul had become his bow.  he was playing his life.  His whole being was gliding over the strings.  His unfulfilled hopes.  His charred past, his extinguished future.  he played that which he could never play again.

I shall never forget Juliek.  How could I forget this concert given before an audience of the dead and the dying... I don't know how long he played.  I was overcome by sleep.  When I awoke at daybreak, I saw Juliek facing me, hunched over, dead.  Next to him lay his violin, an eerily poignant little corpse.  (Ibid., 95)

Saddest of all is the fact that when all these things were going on there were many many people who saw, who stopped and stared, who refused to believe the evidence of their own eyes, who refused to see, who just ignored the most heinous of crimes being committed in front of them. 

There is so much more that I could say about this wonderful little book, but I will leave it to you to read.  Elie's account of his father's death is very moving.  He could not even cry because he was "out of tears." ((bid., 112)

Watching With Wiesel 2

Some two years ago in this blog I wrote several post on another great writer to come out of Auschwitz, the equally great Primo Levi - an Italian Jew - and I gave a considered appraisal of his wonderful book called Survival in Auschwitz (Touchstone, 1996).  For my review of that work see this link: - P. L. and Auschwitz.  Here I just wish to contrast the styles of the two writers.  Primo Levi is a natural story teller and one is drawn into his world as a storyteller would so do for his audience.  Primo writes with a greater use of description, especially a greater use of adjectives.  His book abounds with little vignettes and little occurrences, occasionally telling a little uplifting tale from hell as well as describing the more gruesome facts.  On the other hand Wiesel's work is more existential, more pared to the bone (forgive the all too true and almost sickeningly precise metaphor here): consequentially, his style is bare, sparse and spare.  There are no expansive gestures, no eloquent adjectives or long sentences.  There is simply no excess at all.  In fact to say his style is minimalist is almost an understatement.  If Wiesel can get away without using an adjective or adverb he will.  A Nazi concentration camp was  a bare place, a place denuded of all but the barest of human necessities - indeed, it is true to say that most human necessities were not even catered for.  After all, they were death camps, not work camps.  Hence Wiesel's style matches his subject.  His subject is hell on earth; the systematic degradation of human beings; the paring down of the living being to a mere shell of his or her former self; the systematic murder of the mind and the dissolution of the soul.  And Wiesel, being such a typical existentialist, pares us down too with his spare style.  We know we are in the presence of an evil  that is beyond all telling, but in the words of Wiesel we get nearest that horrible truth.  All we can do is listen.  All we can do is watch with him until his story is finished.  This book will never leave the reader who opens its pages because it will invade your soul and silently sit there until you have woken up to the evil in this world and to the evil in your own soul.

1.  Here is the opening sentence of Primo Levi's book: "I was captured by the Fascist Malitia on 13 December 1943.  I was twenty-four, with little wisdom, no experience and a decided tendency live in a world of my own, a world inhabited by civilized Cartesian phantoms, by sincere male and bloodless female relationships." (Op. cit., supra, 13)  Immediately we are invited into a standard autobiography with the emphasis on the first person.  In fact the first word of the first line is "I" and then the author proceeds in what we take will be a standard chronology of his experience in the concentration camp.  And, indeed, that is exactly what we get.  The first sentence is indeed short, but the next few get longer and longer.  Indeed I omitted a parenthesis above.  In other words, our writer Primo Levo constantly wants to expand on what he is saying, fill in the gaps for us, as it were.  Now the approach of Elie Wiesel is not to fill in any gaps.  He has no time for expanding our knowledge through parentheses.  Night could be a wonderfully bleak existential or even nihilist novel were it not for the fact that it is true - harrowingly and excruciatingly true.  Wiesel opens his wonderful little book by introducing us to a character from his native town - a prophetic figure.  One could almost be opening the first page of Moby Dick, that wonderfully strange and intriguing novel by Herman Melville. Those of us who have read that novel will always be haunted by those three famous opening words, "Call me Ishmael."  Here is Wiesel's wonderful opening line:  "They called him Moishe the Beadle, as if his entire life he had never had a surname."  At once we are in the presence of a prophet of doom.  This man Moishe (which I think is the Hebrew word for Moses), while a jack of all trades in the Hasidic house of Prayer, turned out to be a mystic who began to teach young Elie the Zohar, the Kabbalistic works and the secrets of Jewish mysticism.  Moishe, because he was a foreign Jew, was one of the first to be picked up and transported to the concentration camps, but he escaped and came back to the little town of Sighet in Transylvania.  He began to tell people of the horrible things he had seen the German soldiers do, but no one would believe him. 

2.  This book is about death in many ways indeed.  It's about the death of innocence, the death of youth, the death of dreams, the death of imagination, the death of joy, the death of religion and even the death of God.  Let me explain.  Here is how Elie describes the transformation of the mystic Moishe after he had escaped from hell to tell his prophetic message to the Jews of Sighet:

Moishe was not the same.  The joy in his eyes was gone.  He no longer sang.  He no longer mentioned either God or the Kabbalah.  He spoke only of what he had seen.  But the people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen.  Some even insinuated that he only wanted their pity, that he was imagining things.  Others flatly said that he had gone mad. (Night, Hill and Wang, NY, 2006, 7)

We are reminded of Nietzsche's Zarathustra and other works where a madman runs around with a lighted torch proclaiming that God was dead.  How uncanny it is that Nietzsche caught the spirit of the coming age so well, no wonder some Nazis found inspiration of sorts in his work.

3.  Here is this precise description Elie gives of being put on a train for Auschwitz:

The next morning, we walked toward the station, where a convoy of cattle cars was waiting.  The Hungarian police made us climb into the cars, eighty persons in each one.  The handed us some bread, a few pails of water.  They checked the bars on the windows to make sure they would not come loose.  The cars were sealed.  One person was placed in charge of every car: if someone managed to escape, that person would be shot. (op.cit., 22)

4.  Like a bleak novel of the darkest kind we are shortly introduced to another prophetic figure - this time in the shape of a woman who just goes mad because her whole world has been destroyed.  She is in the carriage with them on the way to Auschwitz.  Here is how Elie introduces her to us:

There was a woman among us, a certain Mrs Schachter.  She was in her fifties and her ten year old son was with her, crouched in a corner... Mrs Schachter had lost her mind... On the third night, as we were sleeping, some of us sitting, huddled against each other, a piercing cry broke the silence: "Fire! I see a fire! I see a fire!"...Some pressed against the bars to see.  There was nothing.  Only the darkness of the night. (Ibid., 24)

This poor woman went on and on like this until she was tied up and gagged by the other travellers as they were unnerved by her screaming.  The horrible uncanny thing, of course, was that Mrs Schachter was so unhinged, I know Dr Ivor Browne would say, unhinged to the point of her personal boundaries being broken and all her senses sharpened and her unconscious intuitions tapped into the very truth.  Indeed when they arrived at Auschwitz one of the first things they saw was the infamous chimney from which they could see the flames soar.

We had forgotten Mrs Schachter's existence.  Suddenly there was a terrible scream:  "Jews, look!  Look at the fire!  Look at the flames!"  And as the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky." (Ibid., 28)

The above should give the reader an insight into Elie's pared down style, his stark use of simple words of experiences that defy description.  His style does indeed capture the idea of hell on earth.


To be continued.

There are too many horrific pictures of the Holocaust on the net. So I chose ones that at least were not too horrific and showed some facial expressions

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Watching With Wiesel 1

My alliterative title has been chosen with care.  Let me explain.  Many years ago as a young boy I was an obsessive viewer of that great documentary-style history series The World At War. I remember that I used view this documentary about The Second World War often with my father whenever he was not at work.  Many a time I used go to bed upset by the scenes of butchery and carnage I had viewed and by the eye-witness accounts that I had heard that I used cry myself to sleep.  How could men be so unkind, uncaring and so brutally disrespectful of human life?  When I use "men" here, I'm sadly admitting that it is purposefully chosen to be used in the full glory of its gender rather than in its tamer generic sense of referring to the whole human race.  After all, it is the male of the species who wages war with all its attendant evil excesses.

Narrated by Laurence Olivier and with with a wonderfully moving musical score by Carl Davis, Thames Television made this acclaimed film history of the Second World War which even to this day stands as one of the most massive undertakings in television documentary history.  Why? Well, quite simply, since it set out to tell the story of the war through the testimony of key participants - from civilians to ordinary soldiers, from statesmen to generals, it had to interview many who quite literally had not long to live.  It was first broadcast in 1973.  I would have viewed it both on ITV or BBC firstly and not long thereafter on RTE.  In those years I was in second and third year in secondary school. Even to this day this documentary still gets a massive broadcasting around the world and even has its own designated web site, here - W at W.

Hence the first word in my title above - "watching."  Watching has the meaning in one sense, then, of looking at or viewing a TV programme.  However, it also has a deeper more spiritual meaning too, because to "watch with" someone is to be with them in a caring way; to be with them in spirit.  Those of us who have read the New Testament will remember it is a word that Jesus uses when he speaks with his apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane.  In fact the word appears in the New Testament in the context of a rebuke from the Master's lips as Jesus is reproaching his apostles for not being able to "watch with" him, that is to witness and partake of his suffering.  So hence "watching" when coupled with the preposition has a powerfully resonant meaning. 

Now to the noun or proper noun of my title Wiesel, I do refer to the Nobel Laureate for Peace, Elie Wiesel who could equally well have won the prize for literature.  I had his disturbing little book Night by my bedside for the last two nights and read it from cover to cover.  If you want a first hand account of life in Auschwitz then this is the book to read.  I have ready many books by many other eye-witnesses from this concentration camp and others, but this is the bleakest and most profound.  Buy it.  You'd read it in one sitting - two hours at most I'd say, maybe even more quickly. Anyway in this post I want any readers out there to watch with me with Wiesel as I give an account of this very important disturbing little classic. You cannot remain unmoved.

A Short Note on Wiesel:

Elie Wiesel will be 80 years old this coming September.  The Elie is short for Eliezer.  He is a prolific writer, having written more than forty books - it's as if he has been exorcising by the pen the evil demon of Nazi genocide that entered his young soul an inmate of Auschwitz all those years ago.  He was only fifteen when he was first taken away by the evil Nazi genocide machine.  He is best known for the little book I read over the last two nights as bedtime reading.  Now, if you haven't got a strong constitution I would recommend that you read it early in the morning.  I am accustomed to listening to my dreams and I welcome them, be they good or bad. 

When Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 the Norwegian Nobel Committee called him a "messenger to mankind," noting that through his struggle to come to terms with "his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler's death camps," as well as his "practical work in the cause of peace."   My edition of Night ( Hill and Wang, N.Y., 2006., translated from the French (1958) by Marion Wiesel) is translated into English by his wife and contains an appendix with his Nobel acceptance speech therein, and that makes wonderful reading.  I'll quote a little from it here:

No one may speak for the dead, no one may interpret their mutilated dreams and visions.  And yet I sense their presence.  I always do - and at this moment more than ever.  The presence of my parents, that of my little sister...

I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago.  A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night.  I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish.  It all happened so fast.  The ghetto.  The deportation.  The sealed cattle car.  The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.

I remember he asked his father, "can this be true?  This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages.  Who would allow such crimes to be committed?  How could the world remain silent?"

And now the boy is turning to me.  "Tell me," he asks, "what have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?"  And I tell him that I have tried.  That I have tried to keep the memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget.  Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.

(Op. cit. supra, 118)


To be continued.

Above I have placed the most moving picture I myself have seen from The Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War. This picture is graven in my mind since it was the picture which formed the opening sequence of each programme in The Word At War series. Against the background of Carl Davis's wonderful score this picture was then burned into nothingness. It depicts the round-up of residents of the Ghetto by the Nazis, April/May 1943